Opposition supporters march heading for a protest rally in Moscow, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. Thousands of opposition supporters are expected to march in Moscow for the first major protest against President Vladimir Putin since the summer break.
© AP Photo
MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of protesters marched Saturday across downtown Moscow in the first major rally in three months against President Vladimir Putin, while defying the Kremlin's efforts to muzzle dissent.
Protesters chanting "Russia without Putin!" and "We are the Government!" walked along the capital's tree-lined boulevards to a broad avenue where a rally will be held later in the day. The demonstration reflected that opposition sentiment remains strong despite the government's efforts .
Putin has taken a tougher course against the opposition since his inauguration in May with a series of new repressive laws, arrests and interrogation of activists. In August, a court handed two-year prison sentences to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow's main cathedral. Some activists carried big balloons with balaclava masks painted on — the band's trademark headwear.
A day before the rally, parliament expelled an opposition lawmaker who angered the Kremlin by joining the protest movement. The vote to oust Gennady Gudkov over allegations of running a business in violation of parliament rules — charges Gudkov called "a sham" — angered many, possibly helping beef up the ranks of protesters.
The rally appeared to be as big as the last major protest in June, which attracted tens of thousands.
About 7,000 police officers were deployed to maintain security Saturday along the route of the march, which has been authorized by the city government, and a police helicopter was hovering overhead.